Did you hear? Apparently, the United States needs to take military action against Syria – not because it poses an actual threat to the United States (it doesn’t), not because it’s undermining the vital interests of the United States (it isn’t), and not because a strike will topple President Bashar al-Assad (it won’t), but because the U.S. must preserve its “credibility” in the international arena.
The argument goes something like this: Last year, President Obama made an off-the-cuff remark about a “red line” in Syria, and said if Assad used chemical weapons in the country’s civil war, that would “change my equation” vis-à-vis his approach toward Syria, even though Obama never explicitly threatened military action. Now that Assad has used chemical weapons, it is incumbent on Obama to strike to make good on this earlier, vague threat.
“Using military power to maintain a nation’s credibility may sound like an antiquated idea, but it’s all too relevant in the real world we inhabit ... [Obama] needs to demonstrate that there are consequences for crossing a U.S. ‘red line.’”
Although Ignatius says that the main reason for a strike “should be restoring deterrence against the use of chemical weapons,” the fact is, the “credibility” argument pervades his thinking, just as it does Obama’s.
Here’s Obama speaking in Sweden on Wednesday:
“The international community's credibility is on the line ... And America and Congress' credibility is on the line, because (otherwise) we give lip service to the notion that these international norms are important.”
There are so many things wrong with this rationale it’s hard to know where to begin. Putting aside the issue of just how much actual credibility the U.S. has globally right now, the idea that a nation should use force to make good on an earlier threat irrespective of the moral or legal soundness of that threat is patently fucked. In the long, storied annals of international relations, never has the maintenance of some vague “credibility” ever been legitimate grounds for a state to take military action.
And with good reason.
It would be like North Korea finally delivering on one of its threats of “total war” for various perceived infractions by the U.S. and South Korea. Would an attack by the North show it was willing to keep its word? Yes. Would that make it the right or practical thing to do? Of course not. That’s because sometimes the most credible course of action for a leader to take is inaction, even if that entails a shift in strategy or a tacit admission that one’s previous remarks may have been said in haste.
But “credibility” toward what end? According to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, “A refusal to act would undermine the credibility of America’s other security commitments – including the president’s commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”
In other words, not blowing up Syria will inhibit America’s ability to credibly threaten other countries into doing what it wants. Leaving aside the fact that such threats are illegal under international law, the claim has no basis in reality. The U.S. refusal to strike Syria would not convey weakness, as some have claimed, but rather continue America’s selective application of the use of force throughout the Middle East and the world in general.
There is not a world leader on the planet who is ignorant of the immense power and influence of the U.S. Nor is there one who would interpret U.S. inaction in one conflict as part of an overall shift toward retrenchment as its grand strategy. If anything, U.S. willingness to intervene in some civil wars (Libya) but not others (Syria, hopefully) conveys a certain capriciousness and unpredictability, which makes it difficult for “rogue states” to formulate policy accordingly.
In the end, “credibility” cannot and should not be used to justify military action. “Credible” acts of war are those that are carried out in self-defense, or in accordance with international law, which means by the sanction of the United Nations Security Council. Until the civil war in Syria becomes a real threat to the security of the United States or its allies, or until a strike is authorized by the UNSC, no act of war against Syria is justified.